Sunday, October 7, 2007

To My Favorite Aunt on Mother's Day

Every spring as they pull Easter cards from their racks, shopkeepers begin to stock Mother’s Day cards. As in any mass market, the product mirrors the people it targets: there are cards for young mothers, for old mothers, for grandmothers, for funny mothers, for religious mothers. There is also a measly category for "a Favorite Aunt on Mother’s Day." Here the greeting card industry lacks a certain creative spark.

Having grown up in an era when the extended family was said to be on the decline, I am glad to have been surrounded by lots of nosy aunts and uncles. My father's older sister, Elizabeth, whom we kids call Deedee, lived for many years on the family farm as a single lady secretary. She sold the farm to my parents about 30 years ago, and settled down just a few hundred yards away.

From the time I could cross the road alone, I got off the school bus and walked the gravel road to Deed’s house, banged on the always locked screen door, and went inside to eat something. She saved me leftovers in tiny containers, and I ate her buttered green peas or mashed potatoes cold, sometimes with mustard, to horrify her. Often she sat down with me, and we would rehash our respective days with candor and ease.

Over the years Deedee taught me important things that my funny, affectionate mother did not. While Mom taught me cribbage and bridge, Deed taught me how to iron a shirt properly, how to polish silver, to take butter from the end of the stick already sliced, and a hundred different things that guide my daily comings and goings.

Often she went way above the call of familial duty. One winter when the snow was of the proper crunch and she must have been pushing 60, she helped me build a snow fort. I can still see her hunkering down in the snow pretending to duck my snowballs. Before a trip, her house was the last stop to claim the envelope formally marked with my full name and "Mad Money" beneath it in her spidery handwriting. As I grew older, hers was always a dependable check cashing institution. And once, when my husband and I were teachers overseas, I called her collect during a wave of homesickness. We rang up a $120 phone bill, but we had a lot to say.

Now we talk about once a week. I don't go home anymore because the tremendous maples along the road by the farm have all come down in recent years and I can't bear it. So Deedee comes to visit me and covertly does my ironing. We talk late into the night, and she makes surprising revelations: how she was a bayonet inspector during the war at a farm equipment factory turned munitions plant, and how as a young woman she was home cleaning when she should have been out kicking up her heels. She brings me small family treasures like dainty needlework doilies my grandmother made and the lovely old coffee grinder brought over from Switzerland at the turn of the century.

Is this all sentimental? Probably. But it's true and full of startling amounts love and grace and kindness that I can never repay.

Once when I was about seven, I sat on Deedee's red-carpeted stairs and through the spindles looked at myself in the hall mirror while she carefully combed back my sorry, wild hair. "This is how I would do your hair if you were my little girl," she said, standing several steps below me so that our eyes met in the mirror. What I guess neither of us knew then is that I've always been her girl, and I can't find a card to tell her that.

[This essay was originally published in May 1990 as an occasional piece in the newspaper I was working for at the time. I clipped it and sent it to Deedee. She called, said she liked it and no more was ever said. Eight years later, after she died suddenly of a heart attack, I found it yellowed and creased in her wallet. I read it at her funeral a few days later. I guess a card wasn't necessary after all.]

My aunts, Alice and Deedee, shelling peas on the front porch
at the family farm one summer afternoon during the war

Heidi Shott
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